Dependency Inversion with Elixir Protocols

I’ve always liked the Dependency Inversion Principle (DIP). Once understood, it helps us decouple code in surprising ways.

The definition of DIP (p. 6) has two statements:

A. High level modules should not depend upon low level modules. Both should depend upon abstractions.

B. Abstractions should not depend upon details. Details should depend upon abstractions.

Let’s make those definitions clearer by looking at an example.

Inverting a dependency

Suppose we have two modules: A and B. If module A calls a function of B, then we can say A depends on B. We can represent that dependency with an arrow:

A -> B

A is the high-level module, and B is the low-level details module.

Here are a few concrete examples of how that could look:

# A calls B
defmodule A do
  def do_work do
    B.do_some_work()
  end
end

# A uses B
defmodule A do
  use B

  ...
end

# A imports B's functions
defmodule A do
  import B

  ...
end

So, A’s behavior not only depends on its own internals but also on B’s behavior. Anytime we change B, we have to consider its effects on A.

And it doesn’t stop there. Dependencies can be transitive:

A -> B -> C

In that case, changes in C affect B, which in turn affects A.

When our modules are interconnected, a change in one module can have ripple effects throughout our codebase. That makes our low-level modules more difficult to change and our high-level modules more likely to break unexpectedly.

And that’s what the dependency inversion principle tries to solve. DIP removes coupling between modules by introducing an abstraction, preventing low-level modules’ changes to ripple throughout the codebase.

Going back to our A -> B example, DIP suggests introducing an abstraction X that both modules depend upon, therefore inverting the dependencies:

A -> X <- B

Now, both A and B depend on an abstraction X, and X must be independent of the details of B.

With that in mind, let’s look at an example with Elixir protocols.

Dependency Inversion through Protocols

A protocol specifies an API that should be defined by its implementations.

A protocol defines an abstraction (the API) that high-level and low-level modules depend on (part A of DIP’s definition).

  • The high-level modules depend on the abstraction by calling the protocol’s functions instead of directly calling the concrete implementations.
  • The low-level modules depend on the abstraction by implementing the protocol’s API for their data structures.

Finally, the protocol knows nothing about the low-level modules or their data structures, and thus, the abstraction is independent of the details (part B of DIP’s definition).

Working with collections

Let’s walk through a hypothetical example where we don’t have Elixir’s Enum, List, or Map modules.

Suppose that in our work, we need to iterate over lists. We might define a List.map/2 function that works as follows:

[1, 2, 3, 4] |> List.map(fn i -> transform_data(i) end)

Over time, we perform more operations on lists, so we create several more functions:

List.count/1
List.filter/2
List.any?/1
List.all?/1
...

After some more time, we get new feature requests that require us to perform the same types of operations with maps.

“No problem,” we say. We create a generic Enumerator module that depends on List and Map, and we use guard clauses to choose which implementation to use:

defmodule Enumerator do
  def map(list, fun) when is_list(list), do: List.map(list, fun)
  def map(map, fun) when is_map(map), do: Map.map(map, fun)

  def count(list) when is_list(list), do: List.count(list)
  def count(map) when is_map(map), do: Map.count(map)

  ...
end

That code could work. But our Enumerator module now depends on both List and Map:

Enumerator -> List
Enumerator -> Map

Therefore, a change to either module could change Enumerator’s behavior and break modules that depend on Enumerator.

How could we decouple our modules?

Depend on a protocol

Instead of depending on the concrete modules, we can invert dependencies by having Enumerator, List, and Map depend on an Enumerable protocol:

Enumerator -> Enumerable <- List
Enumerator -> Enumerable <- Map

Enumerable can define a protocol API (the abstraction) for interacting with collections.

defprotocol Enumerable do
  def map(enumerable, fun)
  def count(enumerable)
  ...
end

Enumerator will depend on the abstraction. The protocol remains ignorant (in the good sense) of any details. And List and Map only need to implement the protocol’s API for their own data structures.

defimpl Enumerable, for: List do
  def map(list, fun), do: List.map(list, fun)
  def count(list), do: List.count(list)
  ...
end

defimpl Enumerable, for: Map do
  def map(map, fun), do: Map.map(map, fun)
  def count(map), do: Map.count(map)
  ...
end

Now, changes to List and Map do not require a change in Enumerator. We have decoupled our code and made our program more resilient!

Adding a new collection

We can see just how well our code adapts to change by noting what happens when we add another collection, say ranges.

To allow ranges to behave as collections with the rest of our code, we do not need to change any modules that call Enumerator, Enumerator itself, or Enumerable. All we have to do is implement the protocol for ranges:

defimpl Enumerable, for: Range do
  def map(range, fun), do: range |> Range.to_list() |> List.map(fun)
  def count(range), do: range |> Range.to_list() |> List.count()
  ...
end

Voilà! The only module that changed in our system was Range.

Of course, this example is a bit contrived. It is very similar to what Elixir’s built-in Enum module does with the Enumerable protocol. So, let’s look at a couple of other examples in the wild.

In the wild: Phoenix.Param

Phoenix ships with some really nice path helpers. For example:

iex> MyAppWeb.Router.Helpers.user_path(conn, :edit, @user)
"/users/234/edit"

Interestingly, we’re not passing the user ID (234) as the third argument into user_path/3. Instead, we’re passing the whole @user struct.

How does Phoenix know to get the :id from the struct?

The answer is the Phoenix.Param protocol.

A protocol that converts data structures into URL parameters.

If Elixir didn’t have protocols, the router helpers would have to somehow depend on our schemas to generate URLs. Maybe we couldn’t create path helpers that infer the :id field at all!

But with the protocol, the router code doesn’t have to depend on our schema code. Instead, the router helpers and our schemas both depend on an abstraction: Phoenix.Param.

MyAppWeb.Router.Helpers -> Phoenix.Param <- MyApp.User

You can use that protocol to change how Phoenix renders URLs paths. For example, suppose our user URLs require a handle instead of an id. We can simply define the protocol’s implementation for our User struct:

defimpl Phoenix.Param, for: MyApp.User do
  def to_param(%{handle: handle}) do
    handle
  end
end

Now, user_path(conn, :edit, @user) would give us /users/germsvel/edit – all without having to change MyAppWebb.Router.Helpers!

In the wild: Bamboo.Formatter

We can see another example in Bamboo, an email library. The to, from, cc, and bcc fields required a two-tuple: {name, email}.

Bamboo could have required library users to pass the two-tuple, but that feels clunky. It’s much easier to pass an entire struct:

Bamboo.Email.new_email(from: user)

To do that without protocols, Bamboo.Email would have to somehow depend on MyApp.User.

Instead, Bamboo uses the Bamboo.Formatter protocol as an abstraction to turn data structures into two-tuples:

Bamboo.Email -> Bamboo.Formatter <- MyApp.User

Thus, people using Bamboo can define their own implementations of the Bamboo.Formatter.format_email_address/2 API. For example, they could set the name to be the user’s full name – all without having to change any of Bamboo’s emailing code:

defimpl Bamboo.Formatter, for: MyApp.User do
  def format_email_address(user, _opts) do
    fullname = "#{user.first_name} #{user.last_name}"
    {fullname, user.email}
  end
end

Protocols for the win

There are many other examples of protocols in the wild. But I hope this post gives you a glimpse of the power protocols have to make our systems more resilient to change.

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